The Republicans badly damaged themselves with their contrived government shutdown and debt crisis, but it remains for the Democrats to drive home their advantage. Will they?
Based on the cost to the Republican brand and the pressure from corporate elites not to harm the economy, the days of shutdowns and games with the debt are probably over for the foreseeable future. If the Tea Party faction tries to repeat these maneuvers, House Speaker John Boehner would likely permit a free vote again, and enough Republicans would vote with Democrats to keep the government open.
The Republicans seem hopelessly split between a Tea Party faction that relishes governing crises and a more mannered corporate faction that kills government softly. But the GOP is still one party when it comes to destroying government as a constructive force in the economy and society.
Since Barack Obama took office, the two Republican factions have complemented each other in a successful “good cop, bad cop” effort to ratchet down public spending. Wall Street creates one sort of crisis; the Tea Party creates another; government takes the hit. Except for the short-lived stimulus of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, this is the first prolonged slump of the postwar era in which government cut rather than expanded public spending.
President Obama’s pivot to deficit reduction in late 2009 was in response to the pressures of the corporate elite, while his several capitulations in the budget cuts since 2010 have been driven by the Tea Party. In effect, the Tea Party and corporate Republicans have executed a pincer movement. Domestic discretionary spending relative to gross domestic product is now below that of the Eisenhower era.
With everything else having been cut, the pressure has shifted to the big social-insurance programs—so-called entitlements—that have thus far been protected. Once again, the corporate right and Tea Party right have called for a grand bargain targeting Social Security and Medicare.
A bargain connotes giving something and getting something. Republicans are disinclined to give anything in exchange for cuts in social insurance, least of all tax increases. Their opening gambit was an improbable offer to shrink Social Security and Medicare in exchange for increases in defense spending.
The Democratic caucuses in both the House and Senate are resolute defenders of Social Security. Polls show that more than 80 percent of Republicans and Democrats alike don’t want Social Security reduced. With Republicans pressing for cuts, defense of Social Security is a clear, bright line that benefits Democrats.
Unless, that is, President Obama chooses to blur it. He has already proposed in his 2014 budget a change in the annual cost-of-living adjustment to Social Security (the chained Consumer Price Index). Although a grand bargain is unlikely, Republicans are pushing a mini-bargain of sequester relief in exchange for cuts in other domestic spending or in Social Security. The chained CPI would yield about $34 billion of deficit reduction per year. This disguised benefit cut would split the Democrats as badly as the government shutdown split the Republicans.
A better mini-bargain would be relief from the depressive impact of the sequester without any offsetting cuts. The Democrats have some leverage here, because the sequester mandates at least $23 billion of defense cuts to take effect in January, requiring cancellation of multiyear weapons contracts dear to key Republican legislators. In exchange for restored military spending, Democrats could demand, and get, $23 billion in social spending. That $46 billion would help stimulate a stagnant economy.
Looking forward to the 2014 midterm, pollsters discern a paradox. Support for the Republican Party is down sharply. In October, Gallup found that 28 percent of those polled approve of the Republicans, down from 38 percent in September and the lowest since Gallup began asking the question in 1992. Yet message testing also shows that large majorities of voters are still inclined to fault “partisan bickering”—blaming both parties—rather than Republican obstruction for the government’s failure to make substantive progress in improving a feeble recovery.
So the shutdown debacle helps the Democrats but only marginally, unless they maximize their moment. Midterm elections are notorious for low turnout. Democrats have a prayer of taking back the House only if they energize their core voters. If President Obama goes into the midterm bragging about how much progress has been made, that won’t resonate with Americans suffering from flat or declining incomes and job insecurity. The Democrats need to stand for restored, broadly shared prosperity, not tinkering, and brand Republicans as the party that would cut your benefits.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, of all people, has set a fine example. In the deal that opened the government, McConnell sneaked in the only earmark: $3 billion for a dam in Kentucky. If we ramped that up to the whole country based on Kentucky’s share of the economy, the outlay would translate to about $200 billion. Call it the Mitch McConnell Memorial Infrastructure Program—a nice down payment on the public investment America needs.